This is actually the very last blog in the entire blogosphere (is it still even called that?) to review The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. In fact my finger is so far off the very pulse of the critical zeitgeist that the first reviews of the initial announcement for the release date of the teaser trailers for the third film in the series – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One – are due to appear any day now.
Earlier this year I watched the first Hunger Games film, which I found to be an enjoyable action/adventure/sci-fi romp. To sum up my thoughts at the time: I liked the way it at least attempted to engage with ideas of celebrity, wealth, poverty and the role of the media in society, but found it frustrating that the film didn’t go a little further and make some heavily caustic, subversive statements that would turn a generation of ‘young adults’ into radical left-wing freedom fighters who would subsequently take down the world’s governments and chase a whimpering Simon Cowell to the very ends of the earth. On a side note, when did this ‘young adult’ thing happen? I think I missed that particular meeting. Back in the olden days we used to call them ‘teenagers’, because that’s what they were. But then I guess they all started twerking and smoking joints and crashing around on big wrecking balls while naked, and the world woke up and said ‘we are oddly aroused and simply can’t call these people teenagers any more, we will have to find a new name that is more appropriate’. So ‘young adult’ was born. Well I say ‘harrumph’ to your ‘young adult’. You are a teenager until you go through your first divorce, and then – and only then – you become an adult. An adult is ‘miserable’, not ‘young’. And while I’m on the subject: don’t ‘young adults’ actually want to watch the films that ‘normal adults beaten down by decades of work and crushed hopes and dreams’ are watching? I know I did, way back when I was a ‘young adultnager’.
I admired the way director Gary Ross didn’t shy away from showing violence on screen considering the fairly young target audience, but ultimately the fact that it feels like a kitten next to the rampaging tiger that is Kinji Fukasuku’s Battle Royale (or, equally, Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man) makes me think that an opportunity has been missed. Still, it’s better than many blockbusters of recent years (he damned with faint praise).
I’ll give some reasons as to why in a minute, but unlike most of the reviews out there I’ve read, I don’t think Catching Fire is an improvement on the first movie … but it’s still just about worthy of the ticket price. Set in a dystopian future, a brutal totalitarian regime and its supporters enjoy the high life in a super-rich city while, in surrounding districts, the oppressed underclass digs for fossil fuels and lives in abject poverty. To divert the attention of the masses from their woes, the ruling government – led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) – runs an annual ‘Hunger Games’ televised event, in which two ‘tributes’ chosen at random from 12 ‘districts’ battle each other to the bloody end in an artificial environment.
In the first film the victors of the games were Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up the story in the aftermath of their win. The pair are on a ‘victory tour’, travelling around the 12 remaining districts as part of a tiring schedule of public appearances, and are forced to keep up the pretense of being madly in love with each other in order to cement their popularity with the general populace. Katniss is traumatized by the events depicted in the first film, whereas the otherwise caring Peeta (weirdly) shows no sign of stress or inability to process what happened, and has apparently moved on easily from the battle.
Katniss, however, must deal with a couple of added pressures; having been identified as a kind of pin-up girl for a fledgling revolution, she is threatened by President Snow and must keep up appearances with Peeta, or her family (plus main love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth)) will be executed. She also shoulders the blame for some of the revolution-related events that are happening around her, such as the brutal killing of an elderly man in District 11 who is executed in front of Katniss and Peeta following an act of defiance.
The concerned, Machiavellian Snow and new ‘gamesmaker’ Plutarch Heavensbee (the incomparable Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who will never play a character with a more ludicrous name as long as he lives) plot against Katniss by organizing a special anniversary edition of the Hunger Games, in which previous victors from the various Districts are forced to take part once again and battle each other to the death. This time, though, the stakes are higher yada yada blah blah blah.
Despite once again filling the fairly-long running time with an admirable amount of slow-paced build up, the main problem with Catching Fire is that it retreads a lot of ground already covered in the first film. The structures of both are barely distinguishable, so anyone that has seen the first film will know exactly what to expect: a lot of fannying around as Katniss and Gale gaze adoringly at each other, a little bit of brutal action by the jackbooted fascist police force / army hybrid, and some un-comic comic relief from the tiresome escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks) as they travel around on a futuristic train. (I always think of Effie as a kind of psychedelic version of Michael Portillo, the ex-MP and presenter of the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys.)
Eventually Katniss and her party (including the alcoholic Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, given nothing new to work with here)) arrive in the nation’s capital Panem and go through the same motions as they did in the first film: society events, flaming dresses, Roman-style presentations, TV appearances with the camp presenter Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and pre-Games training (where the contestants all spend far too long scowling at each other).
You could be forgiven for impatiently tapping your fingers on the cinema seat while waiting patiently for the killing to begin. There’s nothing particularly awful about the first 90 minutes or so of this film, and there are some enjoyable scenes and some decent special effects to ogle, but the most thrilling part of both films is the actual Hunger Games battle itself, and re-treading old ground while you wait for the film to re-tread old ground with its big finale is frustrating, to say the least. (Like the first film, one of the best things about Catching Fire is that it is not reliant on its special effects – the CGI mostly fleshes out the city, or the landscape, until used a little more obviously during the battle itself. In fact much of it seems like an afterthought if anything, added in to give Panem a little extra grandeur after the filmmakers realised they had tens of millions of dollars left to splurge.)
In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the actual fight to the death has unfortunately lost a little bit of the initial spark that it had in The Hunger Games. The violence has been toned down, which is a real shame, and at times due to the tropical setting and odd happenings that take place mean it’s a bit like watching an old episode of Lost. As well as each other, the contenders also now have to cope with artificial poisonous fog, artificial force fields, artificial giant waves, artificial electricity strikes and – YES! – artificial hordes of angry killer baboons. So, clearly the premise of a bunch of people battling each other to the death in an enclosed area with a range of weapons isn’t considered to be enough in itself by film two of four, which makes you wonder what they’ll introduce in the next two films to keep levels of interest piqued. Perhaps it’ll all take place underneath a giant floating 5,000ft-long clockwork model of Jason Statham that occasionally shoots jets of fire from its nipples while the characters scrabble around on terra firma. I’d probably watch that in 3D, anyway.
Still – at least this time the cameras were mounted for the fight scenes; I’m not a fan of hand-held shakey-cam, particularly on the big screen, and Catching Fire is ‘easier’ to watch, so to speak.
The focus of the film on certain characters that do not seem to warrant the lavish attention is sometimes baffling, but it must please the legion of fans that devoured the books by Suzanne Collins in the first place, many of whom presumably appreciate the faithful translations. Still, far too much time is given to the on-screen burblings of Effie and Haymitch in particular, and perhaps not enough time is given to developing the character Gale, or his relationship with Katniss, which means that the love triangle involving the pair and Peeta feels a little unsophisticated, once again.
There is more on-screen time for the quietly vindictive President Snow in this film, and Sutherland’s scenes with Phillip Seymour Hoffman – in which the pair of wily old dogs spend hours plotting the downfall of a teenage girl they could easily have killed if they really wanted – are quite enjoyable; the two seem to enjoy their roles as manipulative, dastardly villains, and ham it up accordingly. Neither will look back on The Hunger Games as the pinnacle of their respective acting careers, but Hoffman appears to be game for a bit of fun and Sutherland seems to have enough conviction to suggest he feels that it’s a worthwhile job and not just a late-career paycheck.
Of the other newcomers, it’s something of a mixed bag. Most of them are prior winners of the Games, and fall into two disappointingly-obvious categories: young and good-looking, or old, weird and expendable. Sam Claflin (plus hair and cheekbones) plays Finnick Odair, who succeeds in highlighting just how dull and dreary Peeta is by way of comparison, Jena Malone is good fun as the spiky but underused Johanna Mason, Jeffrey Wright’s character Beetee is a little dull and Amanda Plummer’s Wiress is incomprehensibly wacky.
Lawrence is adequate in the lead role; it must be difficult carrying a big production like this, but she manages to do so, although there’s only so much of her staring forlornly into space I can take before I end up screaming “I get it. You’re going through a troubled time and have a lot on your mind…now pull a different expression”. I expect a breaking point will be reached mid-way through the third film, the way things are currently panning out. Praise for Lawrence’s work here has been a little over the top; even though she is required to be on-screen for most of the film it still isn’t a patch on her most impressive performance to date (that’s still contained in Winter’s Bone, if you haven’t seen it). She proves that she can carry a film of this magnitude, which is no mean feat, but a second Oscar win for this picture is unlikely.
Director Francis Lawrence, who has enjoyed a long, successful career directing music videos (as well as making Constantine and the disappointing I Am Legend), has presumably pleased his paymasters in crafting a solid, crowd-pleasing blockbuster sequel that retains many of the better facets of the first film; approving bums have certainly been warming thousands of seats since the film’s release. However, with a ready-made audience on board, there’s a nagging feeling that Catching Fire represents something of a missed opportunity. The first film didn’t go far enough with its subversion, violence and examination of certain themes and issues, but there was a sense at least that it tried; Catching Fire also tries, but there’s far too much concentration on a flimsy Twilight-style love triangle instead of the beginnings of / reasons for a revolutionary movement. The ending feels rushed and disappointingly flat as a result – it’s always such a disappointment to be part of a cinema audience that raises a collective “EH? IS THAT IT?” when the credits roll, almost as if the actual ending of the film has been mistakenly left on the cutting room floor. On top of that, though the violence is there in places, it is largely toned down, and the influx of new characters ultimately means too much is crammed in, despite the film’s lengthy running time.
It’s still an enjoyable blockbuster, ripping off Rollerball to an extent this time round, but the thought lingers long after viewing that a little more bite and intelligence would be more than welcome. Teenagers may well be called ‘young adults’ these days, but they’re not necessarily being treated as such.
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks
Running Time: 146 minutes